As a stay at home mom and homeschooler, people often assume that I have tons of free time. They think it’s okay to ask me to babysit for free, run errands for them, or volunteer for the most recent committee of whatever. Even when I love the cause, or want to help my friends, I find  it beneficial to step back for a moment and breathe. I ask myself, “If I say yes to this obligation, to what am I saying no?”

Sometimes by saying yes to a craft or event, I am saying no to a relaxed family night. Sometimes, by saying yes to a larger commitment, I may be saying no to my mental wellbeing.

For years now I have kept a notebook. I have gone through some dozen or more humble notebooks, which I have kept. Only as I got older did I realize the value of the efforts at journaling, listing, and taking note. Many great thinkers and writers from DaVinci to Franklin have kept “Common Books,” in which they wrote everything that was of note. Sometimes, later, upon flipping through my grocery lists and ad hoc quotations, I notice interesting intersections. It is from here that I get my writing.

At the beginning of keeping a common book, the most important thing is to simply not edit yourself. I literally write phone notes and grocery lists in them. I also write journal entries, nature sketches, poetry snippets, and anything else that needs writing. My husband keeps a digital version of this, but I have never been able to give up my paper.

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You might then draw the conclusion that the fuller my time and days the fuller my notebook, and therefore the larger my experiences for reflection. This would be incorrect. Activity is the enemy of reflection. In the same way that I prioritize play tie for my children, I prioritize mental space for myself. This means saying no sometimes.

I do this gently, because it has little to do with the activity or person to which I am saying no. I try to be honest. Sometimes the scheduling isn’t right. Sometimes the activity doesn’t meet our needs. Sometimes I can’t commit fully. These are important things to say, so that an activity that’s not right for you doesn’t try to reschedule around your needs.

Some people will be alienated by my taking time and space for my needs and the needs of my family. This is bound to happen and there is not much that can be done. Some people will find a way to be offended about almost anything, and bending over backwards for them will only inconvenience me and will not make them happy.

Mental minimalism allows me to focus on what is truly important, because I have said no to the things that are not. Sometimes this is harder than others. I would love a regular spin class, a reading group for the classics, or to take piano lessons myself instead of watching the kids learn. There are years and years ahead of me to do these things. There are decades (God willing) where I will not have little people in the house with schedules that are not flexible. Teddy needs to learn to read more urgently than I need to watercolor my nature journal.

I need to let go of the idea of time scarcity…the idea that everything has to happen right now. I can afford to savor a meal, snuggle a child, and watch a favorite movie again. I can call my mom, take a nap, and recharge my batteries to be patient with my family.

Every year or so, I edit my personal goals, a la “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” still the best personal improvement book ever written, in my humble opinion. So, I rewrite my personal goals, outlining roughly how I want to prioritize my time and energy.

Because I know people will ask what mine looks like….here you go. This is one of my mission statements from before I had Teddy:

Personal Mission Statement

My primary principles are Excellence, Scholarship, Service

Excellence– to seek the highest quality of result in whatever my activities, be they personal or professional. This will require me to allocate my resources of time, money, and energy only to those things which are truly valuable to me. I will simplify my life of people, things, and ideas which do not add to my life.  I will decline invitations to participate in activities that will sap me of my ability to achieve excellence in my chosen pursuits. 

Scholarship– to seek to become enlightened and informed on topics of importance through independent research, thought, and dialogue with others. This value is a necessary cornerstone of achieving excellence. 

Service– to use my unique talents for the service of my community and world. To be an example of what personal fulfillment can be attained through service. 

In my role as individual-My relationship to myself is of paramount importance to my ability to develop my values and talents and pursue my goals. My relationships will all others are deeply impacted by my relationship with myself. Towards this end I will guard my physical and mental health, avoiding people, situations, substances, and habits that have deleterious effects on either. I will work continuously towards improving my well-being, following the two directions of the Oracle of Delphi- “Know thyself” and “Nothing in Excess.” I will be gentle with myself, but work always to fully develop my unique potential

In my role as wife- I will be supportive of Ben’s interests and help him to fully develop his talents. I will be complementary to him in his role as father.  I will be the kind of person who sidesteps negativity in our interactions. I will be slow to anger. I will be quick to forgive. I will be willing to admit to and learn from mistakes. 

In my role as mother- I will enjoy my children for who they are, not who I desire them to become. I will be present in my time with them. I will prioritize their needs. I will help them to develop correct values and become self-sufficient. I will foster in them a love of reading, service and learning. I will recognize my role as teacher and student as part of my role as mother. I will not be reactive to my children. I will manifest patience and unconditional love in my interactions with them. They will know that they are accepted. They will seek excellence in their lives from the solid base that Ben and I provide them. 

In my role as student- I will prioritize my role as student to my role as teacher. I will recognize that there are  infinite ways in which I can learn throughout my life. I will continue to read broadly and voraciously. I will continually reevaluate my ideas, opinions, and prejudices. I will seek to see the world through alternative paradigms. I will not allow myself to become stagnant in my thinking. 

In my role as teacher- I will continually reevaluate my philosophy of teaching and make sure that my actions are congruent with my goals as a teacher. I will recognize that my life is the most powerful educational tool I possess. I will seek to live as a model for my students, friends, and family.  I will continue to develop my research and ideas in the field of human trafficking and will seek new opportunities to inform others. I will keep in mind the words of Thoreau, “ For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.” I believe the root cause of evil committed by people is ignorance and I will seek to address this as a teacher. 

Community member- I am a member of several communities, where I can employ my principles of excellence, scholarship, and service. I am a Big Sister, a Catholic, an anti-slavery activist,  a member of the Navy community, and a member of my local community. 

Friend- I have a large group of close friends, to whom I have specific obligations and responsibilities. 

GOALS

What do I want: 

-In my marriage?- I want Ben and my marriage to be a partnership between two successful individuals who take genuine joy and interest in each other’s interests  and accomplishments. I want Ben and I to be best friends, and to have positive, mutually reinforcing communications. We will attain higher levels of professional success and personal fulfillment working together than we could as separate individuals. This relationship will embody the principles of creative collaboration, team work, and interdependence. 

-From Sophia?- I want a beautiful, intelligent , emotionally mature daughter who directs her talents toward worthy goals.  I want a friendly, warm relationship of mutual respect, love, and humor. She will always want her mother to be part of her life. She will seek and accept my advice, because I am not critical or judgmental with her, but accept her with unconditional love. She will desire and receive my acceptance because I expect from her the excellence of which she is capable of. 

HOW WILL I GET TO THESE PLACES?

PRIORITIES

  1. Taking care of Myself, spiritually, physically, emotionally

  2. Nurturing, loving, and enjoying Sophia and Teddy

  3. My Relationship with Ben

  4. Close, mutually giving friendships, Elizabeth, Mom

  5. My teaching

  6. My volunteer pursuits

  7. My research

Your own personal mission statement could start out very simply, with only a list of your priorities in numerical order. It could also outline your values and your definitions of those values. Don’t stress, this will grow through the years and it only matters what it means to you and that it clarifies your goals and values.

Articulating these goals for myself has helped me say “no” to non essentials, and therefore clearing my mind and time for those things that are truly important. How do you say no, without alienating people? How do you prioritize your time? Do you or your family write mission statements?